Teacher, author, union leader, politician, and arts advocate Caroline Miller waited decades to produce Woman on the Scarlet Beast.
Teacher, author, union leader, politician, and arts advocate Caroline Miller waited decades to produce Woman on the Scarlet Beast.
Arts & Humanities

Woman for All Seasons

Playwright Caroline Miller ’59, MAT ’65, dusts off script after a dramatic pause lasting four decades.

By Laurie Lindquist | June 1, 2015

A full house gathers at Portland’s Post5 Theatre during the 2015 Fertile Ground Festival to see Woman on the Scarlet Beast by Caroline Miller ’59, MAT ’65.

When the lights come up, an aging hooker named Ruby is reclining on a sofa and her pimp is zipping up his pants in the living room of a ’60s-era Sellwood duplex. As he carries her to her wheelchair—draped with a cherry red sweater, it is the scarlet beast of the play’s title—they argue over her health. Barbs fly back and forth: he says she’s losing too much weight, she tells him it’s none of his business.

This is no nostalgic view of yesteryear Portland, nor is it an apocalyptic allegory. Ruby; her daughter, a Carmelite novitiate; and her mother, a devout Roman Catholic and the widow of an abusive alcoholic, were Caroline’s neighbors while she was earning an MAT at Reed.

A decade after she left the Sellwood duplex they shared, Caroline endeavored to write about the women using the cryptic details overheard in conversations. “The plight of these women touched me and I wanted to honor their struggle,” says Caroline. “The hunger for love and acceptance is in all of us: if we don’t have love, we may do bad things.” 

In her play, she took on the changing roles of women in the ’60s and the patriarchy of Roman Catholicism. She recalled the intensity that Ibsen used in his play Ghosts, tearing down the phony language used for manipulation and to mask insecurity. Writing a play was a challenge for Caroline, who is more comfortable with narrative style, but it was one she determined to master.

That mixture of determination and versatility is evident in her career, which included positions as teacher, president of a teacher’s union, councilor for Metro, commissioner for Multnomah County, arts advocate, artist, and author. Caroline earned a BA from Reed in literature and philosophy, writing the thesis “Mode of Perception and ‘Style’: Heinrich Wöfflin’s Principle of Art History” with her adviser, Prof. Marvin Levich [philosophy 1953–94]. From Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, she received an MA in literature with distinction. She taught school for 18 years, beginning in England and Africa and ending in Portland, after which she led the Portland Federation of Teachers; helped found METRO, Portland’s regional planning agency; and was the first Hispanic to be elected to the Multnomah County Commission, where she served two terms. 

A noted champion of the underserved, the working class, and the elderly, Caroline states that her primary values are compassion and truthfulness. “I honor compassion in people, so I try to harbor and nurture it in myself.”

In 1988, she left politics to concentrate on art and writing. Woman on the Scarlet Beast had undergone her edits in its first decade, but its capacity as performance art had yet to be realized. In the mid-’90s, she met with the late Bob Bidleman, who was then associated with the Columbia Theater Company. The two worked on the script to sharpen its theatrical potential and Bob gave it a stage reading. A second reading came during a Portland JAW Festival, where the play reached the semifinals.

Decades passed. Caroline published three novels and several short stories. She did silk screening and painting, opened the Parlor Gallery, and helped found the Bouand Dance Company. She created a website and the blog Write Away. Some of her writing was dramatized for radio, but her play was ignored and rebuffed as a woman’s play. “I was told to take it to a woman’s theatre group,” she says. At last, a meeting with the Post5 directors in 2014 put the play before an audience.

What defines a woman’s play? As an advocate for women’s rights and one who worked in the trenches for the ERA amendment, Caroline carefully considers the question as she sips her coffee. A woman’s play deals with how women use language to gain power, she replies. “Words, guilt, and manipulation are women’s tools.”

Woman on the Scarlet Beast takes its title from a verse in Apocalypse, “I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet colored beast, full of the names of blasphemy.” Ruby is seated on her chariot, clawing like Medea, says Caroline, in an effort to gain acceptance from her mother and daughter. She is dark and menacing, she seethes with anger, but Caroline’s character doesn’t shout. It is a subtlety that could be lost in production.

Equally delicate is the final scene in the living room, when the women confront the lies that have defined their relationships with one another and where Ruby tells her mother and daughter that she has terminal cancer.

“Way to play the pity card,” the daughter replies. 

One outcome for the women might be to leave them where they are at that moment—in a hell not unlike Sartre’s No Exit—but Caroline chose otherwise.

It was in a class with Prof. Lloyd Reynolds [English & Art 1929–69] that she first viewed Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son. She was moved to tears, she recalls, and it was this image of reconciliation that came to her as she contemplated the play’s final scene. “Everyone bears the burden of some harm done to another,” she says. She would give the women what they needed most—forgiveness.

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